Panel discussion focuses on wrongful convictions

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — A developmentally disabled man's wrongful conviction led 10 years ago to the formation of the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic — but one of the organization's founders said her attempts to exonerate the man were used against her by political rivals.

Tom Cress was wrongfully convicted of the 1983 rape and murder of Patricia Rosansky, a 17-year-old junior at Battle Creek Central High School who was abducted as she walked to school.

Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack (right), leads a panel of legal experts discussing wrongful convictions.

Attorneys Bridget McCormack and David Moran worked separately on the case for years, and in 2010, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm commuted Cress's sentence.

When McCormack ran a Democratic nominee for a Michigan Supreme Court seat in 2012, she said her efforts to free Cress were used against her.

"My opponents sent fliers around telling how I got criminal murderers out of prison," McCormack said Friday during a panel discussion about wrongful convictions at the University of Michigan. "People called to tell me they didn’t want someone who got murderers out of prison on their state Supreme Court.

"I called every one of them back and explained (details of the case), and to a person they apologized, and said they would work to help get me elected," said McCormack, who is now chief justice of the state's Supreme Court.

Friday's discussion commemorated the anniversary of the clinic's 2009 founding by McCormack and Moran, who now heads the organization.

McCormack said the Innocence Clinic was the first non-DNA  innocence organization in the country.

"(The Cress case) was a very difficult non-DNA case that was brought to me by (Moran); he thought maybe someone else should take a look at it," McCormack said. "Then, (former longtime Detroit television journalist) Bill Proctor suggested putting law students on these cases would be a good idea.

"Now, 22 exonerations later, it still seems like a good idea," she said.

Panelists at Friday's discussion agreed that while great strides have been made in the efforts to exonerate wrongfully convicted inmates, a lot of work is still yet to be done.

The innocence movement gained traction with advances in DNA science in the 1990s, Moran said, but the Innocence Clinic was founded to work on the great majority of wrongful convictions that don't involve DNA evidence.

"DNA evidence in sexual assault cases showed there were a lot of wrongful convictions, and there was no reason to believe it only happened in sexual assault cases," he said. "Bridget and I knew that, and that's why our focus was to pick up all the other cases." 

"In 2008, within a few weeks of starting up, we had several thousand letters," Moran said. "So we knew there was a huge untapped need for someone to look at these non-DNA cases."

Barry Scheck, considered the father of the innocence movement, said getting solid legal representation is a key to ensuring that innocent people don't get convicted.

"I don’t think there’s any one solution to moving forward in the innocence movement," Scheck said. "You need good public defense, because we’ll never get to the root cause of this problem until people get good representation."

Since he co-founded the Innocence Project in 1992, the organization has helped exonerate 198 wrongfully convicted prisoners who served more than 22,000 years in prison.

The need to eliminate wrongful convictions is an issue that transcends politics, Scheck said. 

"People on the left and the right want to do things that will fundamentally change the criminal justice system," he said. "There's agreement on the left and right that misconduct by prosecutors should be addressed to increase public trust."

Renowned attorney Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, addresses an audience at a University of Michigan discussion about wrongful convictions

Attitudes about wrongful convictions have changed in recent years, said Valerie Newman, a longtime defense attorney who now runs the Wayne County Prosecutor's Conviction Integrity Unit.

"Parties who have traditionally been adversarial are now working together," Newman said. "I think prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges are on the same side. If our goal is fairness and justice, then fairness and justice should not look different to these different groups."

It wasn't easy convincing people wrongful convictions were a major problem, said University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross, who runs the university's National Registry of Exonerations, which lists 2,515 exonerated ex-prisoners.

"Forty years ago, the accepted wisdom was that wrongful convictions were rare events," Gross said. "The advent of DNA exonerations was a bombshell and showed that wrongful convictions happened more often than people thought.

"When science proved that (people were) innocent, it changed the public's view of the nature of the criminal justice system," he said.

Richard Phillips, 73, was among the exonerees who attended the discussion. He spent 46 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit until his 2018 exoneration.

Phillips, who served more time in prison than any other innocent person on record in U.S. history, said he's encouraged at how the innocence movement has grown.

"We have a situation where we can really make a difference, and that's what we're here to do," he said. "The law, the criminal justice system — all we're trying to do is make it fair."